Musicals — particularly tragic ones — hang on two things: A heart-stopping, full-chorus opening number and a sob-inducing closer. Nail those two and the audience will be much more forgiving of the rest.
“Les Miserables” does neither. The opening song begins strong, but is quickly swept aside by Russell Crowe’s (Javert) distracting attempts to not sound like an actor out of his depth. And the ending, while leaving few dry eyes in the theater, left me feeling muddled and confused.
I went into this year’s adaptation of the musical excited beyond all reason, even though I had only the vaguest idea what it was actually about (French revolution, right?). I’ve never seen the stage production nor the 1998 non-musical version starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean.
But I was dying to see Hugh Jackman (picking up the role of Valjean) sing. I first saw his musical prowess as Curly in “Oklahoma” and fell in love. (He’s gorgeous AND can carry a tune!) So I went in with great expectations: Jackman’s Broadway pipes in a legendary role. Even if I didn’t really understand what the role was.
Less than 10 minutes in, I realized I wasn’t going to like it. You can’t sing along to these songs. They are heartbreaking and written in a vocal range that no human being naturally fits. Not that the actors didn’t give it their all: Anne Hathaway (Fantine) was brilliant. Her songs were beautifully executed, as were Amanda Seyfried’s (Cosette). But let’s be honest, we’ve all been dying to hear her sing again since “Mama Mia.” The female vocalists are the strongest element of the entire film.
The men, sadly, were the weakest. Russell Crowe just didn’t have the cajones for Javert. His role felt flat and soulless, and he looked as uncomfortable singing the role as we were watching him do it. Even Jackman was at times tragically lackluster. He never had the opportunity to throw the full glory of his musical training behind a note.
Part of the problem here is in the recording: The songs were recorded on set, instead of having the actors re-record in the studio and dubbing (for an example of that see “Sweeny Todd” with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter). So actors who aren’t used to making grand displays of emotion and singing through sobs were forced to do just that, with a camera in their face. The decision left them unable to put the lungs behind the words, leaving some of the songs muddled and impossible to distinguish what was actually being said, particularly when multiple parts were singing over each other.
It’s not all bad. There are some gems. Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen steal every scene they are in as Thénardier and his wife. “Master of the House” is a welcome moment of comic relief after so much gut-wrenching tragedy. The children (particularly as-of-yet-unknown Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche) and the revolutionaries are also masterfully done, but we meet them much too late in the film. Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) are the two most interesting characters and the best male vocalists in the lot, but they were relegated to the backdrop of Valjean’s ongoing personal crisis.
The pacing issue (which TJ deals with here) combined with a limited ability to understand the actors makes this film a terrible introduction to what is universally known as one of the greatest pieces of musical theater of all time. You never get to know any of the characters and so have no emotional investment in their fate.
I left feeling frustrated and that in order to understand the film, I’d have to see it again. Except that I don’t really want to. Here’s hoping the stage production makes a trip through Washington soon so I can see it in its full glory.
Bottom line: If you’re more of a Rogers & Hammerstein musical fan and aren’t familiar with “Les Mis,” wait for the DVD.